The Power of Storytelling

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typewriterSeveral recent bloggers have raised the question, “Why do we write?” I want to respond to that question. Mainly, I think we write because it’s therapeutic and exhilarating. Also, as humans we desire communication with those around us. But I’m also interested in something else. Not only why we write (Step 1), but also why does it matter (Step 2)? What’s the point? Does it change anything about who we are or the world we live in?

Step 1: Storytelling can be empowering for the writer, a form of self-expression, or a way of figuring out the truth. When a story is told, it can initiate change in a community or improve communication about a life experience. Stories have immense power in communities, connecting people to things they may not hear or see on their own. Stories, ultimately, can be archived for future generations and communities. We write because stories can find a way to truth or understanding, raise difficult questions, and spread awareness about experiences.

Step 2: Does the act of storytelling matter? What’s the point? Our whole society revolves around the written and spoken word: the building blocks of storytelling. We go to extensive effort to teach children how to read and write. I am going to be an English teacher next year. How can I explain to my students that storytelling really does matter?

I have recently been thinking about the power of storytelling because of a project I am working on called The Facing Sexual Violence Project, but first I am reminded of a TED talk that discusses the danger of a single story. Chimamanda Adichie, a lover of stories and a storyteller herself, speaks on why it is important for stories to provide multiple perspectives of life. There should not be one story, but many. According to Adichie, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” Without a variety of stories, Adichie argues that we fall into the trap of believing what she calls “a single story”, a limited understanding of whatever it is we tell stories about.

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Multiple stories, however, give individuals and communities a chance to think about things in a new way. Individuals who truly listen to multiple stories open up their minds. They begin to think for themselves, considering the perspectives they encounter in stories and developing ideas about how to move something in the world.

Adichie talks of stories as if they have volcanic power. She says, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Adichie’s TED talk inspired me because I also believe in the power of storytelling, which brings me to The Facing Sexual Violence Project, the inspiration that charges electricity through my fingers as I type this blog.

Why do I write and read stories?

Because I want these stories to change the world, advocate for social justice, entertain a young girl or a busy parent.

The Facing Project ( is a national non-profit organization that works with communities to connect through storytelling over a particular challenge or social issue. Facing matches community members who wish to anonymously (or not, if desired) tell their stories about the issue at hand and ultimately publishes them in a book or in some other expressive form. The Facing Project has reached communities dealing with poverty, human trafficking, and many more.

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So, what’s our issue?

Sexual violence in Rockbridge County.

W&L student Noelle Rutland brought The Facing Sexual Violence project to Rockbridge County. Storytelling, it seemed, would be the best way for the community to speak for itself. Why does storytelling matter? To me, it matters because it inspires things like The Facing Project. Storytelling propels individuals to share something and it gives communities opportunities to communicate with each other.

As the project grows, I am lucky to participate as Noelle’s co-manager, and I am inspired by the stories we have received so far. Washington & Lee Professor Deborah Miranda shared an excerpt from her story, Silver, with our project that illuminates the importance of storytelling.

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W&L Professor Deborah Miranda (Blog:

For years, Professor Miranda kept her story silent. She confessed, “Most of all, I can’t tell because there is nobody who wants to hear…My husband asks what’s wrong. I don’t have the words to tell him. He doesn’t really want to know.”


For anyone who has a story to share, silence can be petrifying. The longer you are silent, the more you convince yourself that your story should not be spoken aloud. If you speak it aloud you may disrupt the peace, you may upset someone, and you will certainly make yourself more vulnerable.

Storytelling defies silence

It yells doggedly at the settled earth and the status quo:

“LISTEN. I have something to say. I cannot keep this inside of me any longer. I have a story. We all have a story.”

Miranda says,

“I write this story by waking up each morning and writing until I feel myself begin to change the truth. Then I walk away from the work till I can face reality again…I walk away from this story for nearly a decade; walk away with its false ending: the warm old house, the husband, the fiction of a healing that doesn’t cost, but doesn’t transform. I fight transformation tooth and nail. At last, I recognize change as my old friend, Truth. I stand still, and embrace her.”

Professor Miranda’s story shook me in the best way – like when you’ve overslept and your benevolent roommate wakes you abruptly so that you’re not late to class – it pulled me out of my dream-like state into the world urgently awaiting these stories. We have to face them.

(Quotes from Miranda excerpted from: Silver, by Deborah A. Miranda. First printed in Bad Girls/Good Girls: Women, Sex and Power in the Nineties. edited by Nan Bauer Maglin and Donna Perry, Editors, Rutgers University Press, 1998.)

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5 Responses to The Power of Storytelling

  1. Annie Persons says:

    Thank you for this powerful and important blog–I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Kiki Martire says:

    This reminds me of part of the Rebecca Makkai novel that probes at the same question:
    Why do we create art and tell stories? On page 307 she says, “What were they trying to express, but the inexpressible? If there existed words, regular words, to say what they were aiming at, then why would they even need to do what they did?” I agree there is something lacking from everyday speech when communicating the truly significant or transcendent. Perhaps another aspect to this question is what drives us to tell our stories in creative ways? What drives the short story, the non-fiction essay, the poem? I think Makkai is getting at this notion in that excerpt.

  3. Rod Smith says:

    On a pretty elementary level, I think we tell stories to know who we are. Each of us has a central, arterial story, the story of our life, which involves improvisation, appropriation and artful forgetting almost as much as it involves memory. We’re telling this private story to ourselves every day, keeping the pilot light of identity burning. We take it public in anecdotes and reminiscences, even if we’re not writers or performers of other sorts. We rehearse it and burnish it, customize it for the needs of the hour, rephrasing, reordering. And we dovetail our stories with those of our immediate and larger communities, warp and weft, woof and meow, building a shelter and a vessel and a garden of our sentences and fragments, and we share those stories like sharing our bread and wine. The amazing and fortunate thing is that, at times of need, we can breathe those stories, and we can share the air of them like two divers sharing one oxygen tank, passing the mouthpiece back and forth. We can share them with our contemporaries, and we can take sustenance from the stories passed on by those whose lives are over. As W. C. Williams said, though we can’t get the news from poetry (OR STORIES, he probably understood), men (and women) die every day for the lack of what can be found there. Just as our culture has come to understand that we need a “casual dress” day once a week, maybe we should understand that we need a story day or a story hour at least as often. Narration is breath, sequence is survival and suspense is just downright flavorful and spicy. Long live the stories and the tellers and the listeners, who are participants, as well. In the beginning was the word, and it was good.

  4. hewittc15 says:

    Whenever I think about Adichie’s talk, I’m reminded of the danger we face when the only story we hear is not just different from our own, but in active contradiction. What happens when the popular narrative erases you, blames you, or demonizes you? Sometimes, even claiming to have your own narrative is an act of rebellion and resistance. I’m excited to see how the Facing Project cultivates an environment to encourage sharing these narratives.

  5. Pingback: Rockbridge Community Takes Action Against Sexual Misconduct | Katharine Patton

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